As France reels from the announcement of the AUKUS partnership, Donald Forbes writes that France does not have as much ground for complaint as it thinks it does, a combination of its lax approach to fulfilment and a realignment of strategic priorities playing a key role.

A Trafalgar in the Pacific, a betrayal of the America's oldest ally, a diplomatic and commercial slap in the face for Europe as well as France. The French don't have words harsh enough to express their fury over Australia's decision to cancel a 32 billion Euro order for 12 French conventional submarines and work instead to build eight nuclear powered alternatives with the United States and the UK (which remains unforgivable for Brexit).

This is a humiliation that President Macron could have done without at any time but especially now. For the moment, hurt national pride is a unifying factor but once this subsides and normally politics resumes, the affair could have some impact on his chances of re-election next May. The longer Paris keeps the crisis going – and the media as well as the government are in full orchestral mode – the more it will be fixed in people's minds that this happened under Macron's presidency.

The contract cancellation has been as much a jolt to the Government and the public as the arrest of former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Khan in New York in 2011 for allegedly raping an hotel maid. How could such a thing happen to a country like France which was preparing to anoint Strauss-Khan as its next president? Add in the historic French antipathy to all things Anglo-Saxon and the loss of the submarine deal has all the ingredients of a head on challenge to France and its idea of itself at the head of Europe – along with Germany – and as the foremost defender of European interests in NATO.

The contract was signed in 2016 with France's Naval Group to build the submarines for the Australian navy to reinforce its defences against the threat of Chinese bullying in the Indo-Pacific region. It was a hailed in Paris as the 'contract of the century'; a triumph for French technology and a boost for the weapons industry which is a crucial component of the export economy.

The new AUKUS (acronym for Australia, the UK and the US) pact will now construct eight nuclear submarines instead in a deal under which the Americans will share nuclear secrets with its allies.

The ostensible blame lies with France's own inward-looking perception of its own uniqueness. The French do everything their way. Having won such a valuable prize, they were strangely casual about fulfilling it. The Australians complained about rising costs and delays in the delivery timetable. The blow may have arrived unexpectedly, with the French getting only a few hours forewarning, but the signs Australia was unhappy had been building for months.

Write for us.

We're always on the lookout for talented writers and welcome submissions. Please send your opinion piece or pitch to: editor@commentcentral.co.uk

However, behind the Australian decision to change contractors lay the determination of the Biden administration to step up the US containment of China and ability to defend Taiwan. Although France has a strategic naval presence in the Pacific, the US decided that forming partnerships with countries of the region itself will be a more effective deterrent to Chinese expansionism.

Beyond recalling his ambassadors to Washington and Canberra – but not London – there is nothing Macron can do in the immediate. However, some sort of revenge will be taken further down the line which Boris Johnson would do well to anticipate, since the UK is the closest victim at hand.

It's unlikely that any other EU or NATO country feels the same sting as France, whatever Paris says. But the outlines of Macron's retaliatory moves, which would involve moving Europe away from its security relationship with the United States to go it alone, are being voiced.

This would presumably mean the end of NATO as we know it, as well a radical change to the EU's traditional adherence to soft power rather than sabre-rattling. Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who openly expressed his bitterness and anger against the AUKUS group, said: "European strategic autonomy is the only credible path towards the defence of our interests and values."

This would mean a complete rethinking of the EU's plans for a European Army with France, as the bloc's only nuclear power, in the leading role tugging the other 26 countries behind it. It would change the geopolitical map and enable EU policy toward China and elsewhere to diverge from Washington's, dividing the West sharply in two, if Macron could pull it off.

There would be strong resistance from Germany which has made clear its doubts about the feasibility of an independent European security bloc and other EU countries which remain attached to NATO and the comfort of massive US military power. It would also cost Europeans a lot of money.

These are early days. For the moment, the French are hot with anger but there have been major disputes with the United States in the past which have been healed by time. France did its utmost to stop George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. It lost that battle but the outcome of the war proved it to have been right.

17 votes

Sign-up for free to stay up to date with the latest political news, analysis and insight from the Comment Central team.

By entering your email address you are agreeing to Comment Central’s privacy policy